Monday, June 7, 2010

Ruminations on the Steel String (apres Jack Rose)

I saw Jack Rose play once in Chicago in 2002. It was at a bar in the Wicker Park neighborhood, and I was a little drunk and fairly unimpressed. At the time, my exposure to Takoma and fingerstyle American folk guitar had been positive. Yet the appropriation of the form by a few recent practitioners was something I found kind of pointless and full of posturing. So my first instinct upon seeing Rose sweatily run through and wrangle with a bit of Americana was to boozily shit-talk what I perceived as some sort of half-assed hipsterism. Maybe at the time it hit too close to home – it wasn't that many years prior that I discovered jazz and free jazz, and as a young white middle-class kid, was self-conscious of my own authenticity and how I appreciated or dealt with an art form. At the time I was also playing cello and improvising, and struggling with form, emotion and history.

So the years went by and I saw Rose's name around, but didn't really pay much attention to his music. Headlong into the jazz/new music world, that's not surprising, though I made an effort to continue checking out folk-blues recordings of old. Still, I was saddened to learn of his death in December 2009 of a heart attack at age 38 - nobody deserves to die that young, especially someone who (hindsight tells me) clearly had more than an ounce of creativity and spirit. It has taken me a while – fits and starts, mostly – to begin to assess what Rose had been up to, and it’s been eloquently done elsewhere (in the pages of Signal To Noise and Dusted for example). Weighing in further seemed to me a bit unnecessary. Nevertheless, now that the dust has settled, perhaps a belated review of two fine discs can come out of it all.


Rose probably has a mountain of tapes (or files) that will someday see release. The music he was working on before he died comprises his first disc for the Thrill Jockey label, Luck in the Valley. He's joined here by the Black Twig Pickers, slide guitarist Glenn Jones, pianist Hans Chew and Harmonica Dan on a set of ten standards and originals. The first thing that’s incredibly obvious from the opening “Blues for Percy Danforth” is that Rose is an excellent six-string player, crisp but honest in his phrasing and while certainly a revivalist nod to the blues ragas of Robbie Basho, it’s not so much of a paean that one can’t appreciate his genuine expressiveness. A harmonica drone underpins Rose’s athletic, mildly jittery alap, mouth-harp placed in contrapuntal relief. What differentiates this music from some of its forebears is a full and sunny quality that balances the bleak, parched drones and plucked latticework of the “Takoma school.” There’s a naked and reverent joy in his playing, easy to lose sight of when one is struck by how much he’s able to capture instrumentally (i.e. the throaty tones of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod).

While musicians like Basho, Fahey and Will Ackerman were certainly mining from disparate traditions for their own work (American/Afro-American, South Indian music, etc) in the end they created a tradition themselves, one which still has enough credence that younger players can dip into the well and come out with their own approaches. Sure, a tune like “Tree in the Valley” seems to appropriate the blues raga forms of steel-string Americana in its approach of the mid-period Fahey void. The jug-band and the sanctified circle dance join together in Rose’s rendition of “Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime,” a rollicking freight-train rumble of guitar, washboard, banjo and harmonica that, nevertheless, drives with a post-Rolling Stones sense of modernity. An earlier time is harked back to in the fiddle-led “Lick Mountain Ramble,” clattering metal and sticks giving a dirt-road bounce to the dark metronomic regularity of Rose’s guitar. It’s easy to both overplay the technical aspects of his playing and undercut it (as some have done with the “American Primitive” moniker). Ragtime and the music that Rose drew from is full of interesting tunings and intervals that don’t necessarily line up with most Western music, but there’s a feeling of textural simplicity that washes over the whole. At the end of the day, how can one critique an ebullient take on W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues?”

D. Charles Speer and the Helix is the group fronted by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist David Shuford (No Neck Blues Band), along with Hans Chew, pedal-steel player Marc Orleans, drummer Rob Gregory and bassist Jason Meagher. With three full-length LPs to their credit, the group is also one of the most unassuming collections of musicians in New York underground rock circles. Their collaboration with Jack Rose, Ragged and Right (Thrill Jockey, 2010), was recorded in the summer of 2008, and while it consists of a mere four tunes, it’s a fitting glimpse onto an avenue that Rose’s work might have taken further. In fact, he plays electric and lap steel as well as acoustic guitars here. Rose and Chew ornament the solemn, dry Southern folk-rock snap of Shuford and Gregory with detailed prewar sensibilities, clear on “Prison Song.”

“Linden Avenue Stomp” merges Fahey’s Yellow Princess-era electricity with the lazy unfurling of Bay Area psychedelia, Gregory’s tom-heavy swing recalling Greg Elmore of the Quicksilver Messenger Service. He also contributes a sort of skiffle-like beat to Merle Haggard’s “The Longer You Wait” that glints off of Shuford’s deep, drawling vocal delivery. There’s certainly a ragged quality to the music of D. Charles Speer and also a complex intertwining of influences often at odds. It’s quite natural that Rose, whose affinities for a diverse range of music crop up in a sort of raga-time stew, found kindred spirits in Speer’s bluesy psych-rock. It’s too bad that the collaboration was cut short, but the four tunes preserved on Ragged and Right are unequivocally excellent.


What has this experience shown me, if anything, as a critic? Sometimes one’s impressions are worth a number of second looks. Furthermore, the idea of tradition is complex, and working within a certain idiom doesn’t necessarily result in narrowness. Jack Rose proved that with a lateral approach to playing traditional music with a decidedly contemporary series of aesthetic choices. This holds true in other idioms, too, and might serve as litmus for dealing with contemporary traditional players in jazz, blues, and so forth. If the valley is that of tradition, luck appears when making (working) something out of it.

(Image yanked from the Numero Group blog. They sell good music.)


  1. Interesting thoughts, here!

    I have been a fan of Jack Rose's since Raag Manifestos came out, and a fan of the Takoma thing for many years more.

    Rose's approach was fascinating from the start, not completely in the shadows of either Fahey or Basho. [I think people will be trying to figure out Basho for some time.] It helped that he came out of a tenure in Pelt, which I think of as a logical extension of what Fahey was hinting at during certain points. That weirdness, that unorthodox approach made things interesting.

    I remember sitting there in St. Paul after the first time I saw him, talking with Glenn Jones, Rose, Peter Lang and Paul Metzger about Fahey, Basho and others. Something else.

    Which brings up the point, have you had a chance to hear any of Metzger's records? He is up to some very interesting things.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Clint. Metzger rules, indeed. Basho is certainly somebody we'll be trying to figure out for a long time - and even he has a sort of direct descendant in Steffan Basho Junghans, who in my opinion is quite good.